13 July 2010

Book of the Week (69): "Losing It", edited by Keith Gray

To publish – not to say edit and contribute to – an anthology for teenagers consisting exclusively of stories about losing virginity is a pretty brave thing to do. (Frankly, publishing short stories at all is daring enough these days, whatever the subject…) All credit, then, to Andersen Press, editor Keith Gray and the other seven contributors to Losing It.

But to focus on the sensation of this book’s very existence is to sell it short, because it’s also very good indeed. The stories are by some of the best YA writers working at the top of their game, and they’ve produced stories that are varied, imaginative, surprising. Some are very funny indeed, others gentle and touching, there’s contemporary and historical, a range of perspectives, and – most important of all – they are not patronising, preachy, moralistic, judgmental or anything even close. They take the subject – sex, a subject which all human beings are biologically programmed to find interesting – and they talk about it properly. Not trying to impart information that’s good for you, but to explore it by getting into the skin of a variety of characters, which is, after all, what fiction does best. My favourites are probably 'Different for Boys' by Patrick Ness (really original, and very funny) and 'The Age of Consent' by Jenny Valentine (again, made me laugh out loud), but I liked them all and there are several others that are terrific, too. We need more books like this.

[The full contributor list is as follows: Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Keith Gray (also the editor), Mary Hooper, Sophie McKenzie, Patrick Ness, Bali Rai and Jenny Valentine.]

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

06 July 2010

Book of the Week (68): "Wasted" by Nicola Morgan

Jack’s desire to feel some sense of control leads him to devise a game, a game that becomes dangerous. He can choose whether or not to play the game but the decision to play means following the rules and obeying the toss of a coin, wherever it leads him. He thinks sacrificing himself to luck this way will keep him lucky, but will it?

Nicola Morgan has written an original multi-layered book exploring concepts entrenched in philosophy and quantum theory through a captivating narrative of ‘what ifs?'. To what extent is life governed by chance or luck, and what control do we really have over what happens to us and around us? Is there anything we could do differently to change what might happen?

Gorgeous wild-haired Jack happens to overhear the beautiful Jess singing just when he’s desperate for a new singer in his band and an instant attraction draws them together. Yet ‘The moment when Jack hears Jess sing so nearly doesn’t happen’, just as many things nearly happen or nearly don’t happen. Morgan’s omniscient narrative style means the reader gets to see them all, we see alternative events unfold and disappear and all the little details that lead to these events as they did or could have happened. This style adds to the sense of being pulled into Jack’s game, feeling its appeal, sensing its danger as the idea of ‘what if?’ seeps into your mind. You can’t help but start experiencing the instability of life, the uncertainty of what could happen, and with it the need to believe you have some control. But Morgan does well to bring in just enough commentary to stop you slipping into the abyss. You can’t live with awareness of all the possibilities of what might be if only… You would go mad.

Through exploring this theme of chance and luck, Morgan interweaves a story of love, of loss, of choices and addiction. The characters are true characters relatable and believable that breathe life into a philosophical idea making it accessible and mind-blowing. The book is interactive both in its ability to make you think and its request that you participate and play Jack’s game to determine the ending.

The more I reflect on this book the more I realise how clever it is - it’s definitely one to read. If you’re not convinced, maybe you should toss a coin and leave it up to chance…

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

  • You may want to explore Nicola Morgan’s blog on Wasted, or her website, has details of her other novels such as Deathwatch and Fleshmarket.
  • Or you could try Being by Kevin Brooks, which also looks at questions of free will and determinism.